The Second World War broke out in September 1939. In keeping with Australia’s limited degree of independence but substantial dependence on England, Australia entered the war because England declared war; that is, it was considered that Australia was automatically a combatant.
Failure of collective security and the united front to prevent the results of appeasement meant that the war was viewed with suspicion by the people even though it was a war against the Nazis and Italian fascists and later against Japanese militarism. Conduct of the war was in the hands of governments which had opposed collective security and championed appeasement; they had shown themselves insincere in combating fascism. In the war conditions, these governments continued oppression against people who had fought for collective security and opposed appeasement. In Australia, the Communists, despite all defects, had certainly been consistent and prominent in their opposition to fascism and to appeasement governments. There was no surprise when the war precipitated a series of measures against them. In June 1940, the Communist Party was declared illegal. During its illegality a few of its members were gaoled.
It maintained a precarious existence. Illegality is a hazard that all Communist Parties face. This has been historical experience. Illegality of a Communist Party follows from the logic of capitalism, with its state machine used as it is for suppression of opponents of capitalism.
Because this has been the history of capitalism and is the logic of capitalism, Communist Parties have set themselves the objective of being able to work in legal or illegal situations. They speak of being shod on all four feet and being capable of using every method of struggle in every set of circumstances. The Communist Party in Australia had prepared to continue its work in what was obviously a period of impending illegality. Actual illegality had been preceded by intensified repression. Censorship of radical publications had been introduced and strengthened. In keeping with traditions born of the anti-conscription struggle and of censorship of working class publications during World War I, Communist publications often came out with extracts from the Bible to fill gaps caused by censorship or simply with blank spaces. Censorship was used to delete criticism of the government, criticism of its following an appeasement line. Censorship of material which drew attention to the phoney war that prevailed from September 1939 to May 1940, a period used by appeasers of the fascists to explore the possibility of persuading Hitler to turn his attack to the East, was imposed.
Weaknesses in the Communist overall view of the course Australian revolution could be expected to take showed up during the period of illegality. Because in its work a disproportionate emphasis had been placed on written and spoken propaganda (and then in an advanced abstract way) at the expense of developing mass connections and accumulating strength, the Communist Party organisations were severely limited by the Party’s illegality. Those organisations had been shaped to distribute propaganda (a good deal of which was about the Soviet Union) as an important task. During the period the Party was underground, propaganda was published illegally. It included newspapers, leaflets and pamphlets. The Party did that with difficulty. Lack of extensive natural connections with the people imposed restricted circulation on these publications. Expansion and protection of Communist activity lie in the people, in the effective and natural mass connections of Communists with the people and, because of that merging, difficulties for the authorities to suppress the Communists. Given correct Communist work, to the external observer, the Communists are indistinguishable from the people amongst whom they work. Thereby their mass work and connections are enhanced.
Illegality meant that Party leaders were unable to speak publicly in the name of Communism as had been the practice. Trade union officials who were avowed Communists, carried the main burden of publicly putting forward the Communist viewpoint. Given a correct overall approach this was perfectly normal and what ought to have been. But given one-sided emphasis on trade unions, it strengthened the trend within the Communist Party in Australia that the trade unions virtually alone held the key to the victory of the immediate socialism that the Party set as its objective. It emphasised among rank and file Communists and Communist sympathisers the rather exclusive importance the Communists attached to the trade unions and trade union leaders in the realisation of Communist objectives.
Communist participation in trade union activity and trade union activity in itself were certainly important matters worthy of emphasis. But with a not altogether correct ideology and correct politics, the emphasis given created ideas that the trade unions were identified with the Communist Party. It not only carried on a traditional onesided idea of trade union importance in revolutionary struggle, but strengthened the foundation for this trend to continue.
In a general sense the Communist Party correctly promoted and participated in struggle against the government’s economic policies, promoted struggle in defence of democratic rights and for the restoration of its own legality.
Its membership had diminished both because improved economic conditions at the close of the ’thirties enticed some members away and because intimidation, persecution and ultimate illegality, frightened some away. Nor can the Party’s own weaknesses be ignored. Failure to evolve a correct programme which grasped Australia’s reality was central to the problem. The “immediate socialism” that underlay the Party’s work and programme attracted many people into the Party’s ranks. Because that “immediate socialism” could not in Australia’s conditions be realised, many became frustrated. Their wishes, hopes and expectations that the Party would lead them to socialism were not realised. They left the Party. In several periods of the Party’s history, this phenomenon expressed itself, notably in the depression of the ’thirties, in World War II and later in the upsurge of people’s struggle in the ’sixties. Its mass influence also declined for similar reasons and for reasons advanced earlier. In terms of gaining trade union official positions, its position had advanced but largely still as a reaction by trade unionists against the corruption and ineptitude of trade union officialdom. To a degree, Communist union leadership did represent left and socialist sentiments among the workers. The critical matter was a correct Communist assessment of the significance and degree of this.
The German army overran Europe. The Japanese militarists were obviously preparing for war in Asia and the Pacific The governments of appeasement, which included the government of Australia, were discredited.
The collective security for which people had struggled in the pre-World War II period was realised soon after the attack by the Nazis on the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941) and the declaration by the then British Prime Minister, Churchill, that Britain would support the Soviet Union in its resistance to Nazi aggression.
This brought an entirely new dimension to the whole situation and to the position of the Communist Party. Further impetus was given to the change in the situation when the Japanese militarists attacked Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941. Within Australia, the Menzies government of appeasement and its successor, the shortlived Fadden government, were replaced by a Labor government headed by Curtin.
The Communist Party remained illegal. However its position had dramatically changed. Collective security led to Communist support for the now decisively anti-fascist war and for the government. The Labor government, because of its greater and much superior national outlook and its influence with the working people, was far better able to organise the war effort than its predecessors with their sectional outlook. The illegality of the Australian Communist Party which had never really been deepgoing turned to a purely nominal illegality. Illegality formally remained until March 1943 but really ceased long before then. The Curtin Labor government welcomed Communist assistance in the war effort. Many Communists joined the armed forces.
In the new circumstances, the climate amongst the people was significantly pro-Soviet. Since the Soviet Union emerged as the only power able effectively to resist the Nazi war machine, then the Communist Party, socialism, the Soviet Union and its leaders, became very popular. When the Soviet Union began to have great military victories in its counter-offensive, that popularity increased. Thousands joined the Party. They were influenced by the successes of the socialist Soviet Union. The Communist Party had suffered in its following of the Soviet Union in the ’twenties and ’thirties, but now the very cause of its unpopularity turned into the cause of a great rise in popularity. The negative side of this was that it tied the fate and course of the Communist Party in Australia even more firmly to the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party. The positive side was that it vindicated the Communist Party’s faith in socialism and campaigns to popularise the Soviet Union and Australian Communist work on Australian issues. Underlying it all too was the Party’s failure to have a clear perspective of phases through which Australia needed to develop.
The Communist International maintained its existence until 1943. It was then dissolved. Notwithstanding its dissolution, its mantle as a central directing body for Communists was effectively assumed by the Soviet Communist Party.
The founders of the International were inspired by revolutionary vision and they inspired many others with similar vision. That laid a foundation. In its early days it did much good work. Study both of the general and the particular emphasised by Lenin in 1922 (previously referred to) required an analysis of experience in Australia and on that basis recognition of Australian problems. The Communist International in its directions and intervention in Australia had overlooked this aspect. The early assessments by the International of rapid socialist revolution failed to take sufficient account of the capacity of capitalism to withstand revolutionary upheavals: there is no such thing as a situation for capitalism from which there is no way out. Thus a left trend appeared in Australia. That left trend was strongly restored, affirmed and put in something of a straitjacket by the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928 and by Stalin and the Soviet Party in 1929 (see Chapter 4). The truth, of course, was that there could be no socialist revolution without mass people’s support and thoroughgoing breakdown in capitalism and its governments. In most cases, as had been seen in Russia, phases preliminary to socialism, had to be gone through. So too in Australia there were preliminary phases. In the ’thirties, the Communist International had correctly identified the danger of fascism and war and called for united action against it. That was a world-wide call. At this stage of its existence, the Comintern took more heed of differing conditions in different countries. Its general secretary was the Bulgarian, Georgi Dimitrov, famous for his defiance of the Nazi frame-up in the Reichstag fire trial of 1934. Dimitrov had an attitude of flexibility, consciousness of the need of the Communists to identify with the people, the need to unify the working class and people in the face of the paramount threat of war and fascism. Now in Australia, within the overall left influence of the demand for immediate socialism which stemmed from the previous Comintern direction and the Party’s own history, right influences also appeared. Instead of careful analysis of the independent position of the Communists, some aspects of united action against fascism rather suggested merging of the Communists with the capitalists. The correct position was that independence of Communists did not preclude cooperation with the capitalists but it did require clear-sighted participation in unity, based upon correct Communist analysis and maintenance of Communist independence and initiative.
Towards the end of World War II, views advocated by the US Communist leader, Browder, carried collaboration and loss of independence of the Communists to their logical conclusion. Browder said that the Soviet Union and the Communists were now so powerful and their collaboration with the capitalists so effective that in effect, socialism could be achieved in agreement with the capitalists. Browder’s views took very great hold within the Australian Communist Party. Rather than recognising the influence of class struggle, war-time collaboration was to carry into the post-war period. The workers, capitalists and Communists together would produce a society satisfactory to all. This was in total conflict with the social laws of basic irreconcilability of the interests of capitalists and workers, the exploiting nature of capitalism and the repressive nature of the capitalist state machine.
Events cast Browder’s “theory” into the dustbin. Euphoric views of collaboration came to an end. That end was most graphically expressed in Churchill’s 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri, when he warned of the danger of Communism to capitalism and called for a world-wide counter-offensive against it. His call was heeded by the capitalists.
When Australian workers found that the war-time promises of a new social order were not fulfilled and working conditions were bad, they waged a series of strike struggles to improve their conditions. At first, these struggles resulted in comparatively rapid realisation of the demands. Increasingly however, the governments of the day, both Liberal and ultimately right wing Labor leaders, resorted to repression in various forms, legislation, court action, and in 1949 use of troops and gaoling of trade union leaders by the then Labor government, to break a strike of coal miners. Here was factual proof of the incorrectness of Browder’s ideas and positive proof of the correctness of the general principles of Communism as to the exploiting nature of capitalism, the class struggle and the repressive nature of the state machine.
In post-war Australia, there was tremendous increase in US investment and correspondingly a tremendous increase in US influence in Australia. This was interrelated with the weakening position of England in the world and the strengthening position of the USA. Already in 1941 (December 29) this had been dramatically reflected in the war-time statement by the Labor Prime Minister Curtin, when he said: “Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom..:’ This statement cannot be regarded as wholly negative. In the then circumstances, the defence of Australia and maintenance of its then degree of independence and sovereignty did depend on a turn to the US.
The ultimate consequences of this are another matter. Intensified and rapid US investment in Australia brought the motor vehicle industry, greatly stepped up US oil penetration in Australia, and the US began to dominate the key sections of Australian economy. To serve the new industries, large numbers of workers from Europe were brought to Australia. This process had the by-product of enriching Australia’s culture and weakening its isolation.
Along with US penetration went an increasing attack on the workers and particularly on the trade unions. During the war-time popularity of Communism, many more key trade union positions had been won by avowed Communists. The election of Communists to these positions reflected not only that popularity in which there was a general leftward turn of the workers but also continued to reflect experience by trade unionists of the incorruptibility and efficiency of Communist trade union leaders. Communist holding of these positions was within the boundaries of trade unionism taken as an ideology. Communist work within the trade unions was an imperative. That is certainly correct and cannot be overemphasised. But it should not be confused with understanding or support among the trade unionists of or for Communism as an ideological-political doctrine. To overestimate the degree to which it reflected conscious support for Communism among the workers was to perpetuate left trends. To underestimate it, was to weaken the Party. An additional problem was that the very fact that numbers of Communists became trade union officials opened the way to a few personal careerists who had little or no principle. They joined the Party simply to get a trade union job.
The Party increased its parliamentary votes during the war. This also was influenced by the popularity of the Soviet Union and identification of Australian Communists with the Soviet Union. Communists hold that in appropriate circumstances, it is correct and necessary for its members to be parliamentary candidates and members. This is part of overall struggle in given times and at given circumstances. This was so of that period but Party understanding was not clear. The Communist candidates in Australia in the war period, were associated with the idea that the changes wrought by the war would enable Communist parliamentarians and others to legislate for socialism in Australia. Ideas of what has been called the peaceful parliamentary transition to socialism, arose. They appeared in Party programmes. In the conception of this peaceful transition, a parliamentary majority played an essential part. That parliamentary majority in this theory would legislate for socialism.
This too was an over-simplification of parliament and its power, an over-estimation of Communist influence, a one-sided view of society rather than an overall view in which parliamentary struggle may be one facet, even a very important and indeed essential facet, of many-sided struggles. It also represented a failure to estimate correctly the role of violence in capitalism. It was married to misconceptions of the trade unions. Together trade unionism and parliamentarism as ideological trends expressed the ideology of the Labor Party. Thus there continued a degree of merging of Communist and Labor Party ideology. Friendly relations between Labor Party adherents and Communists and their respective leaders are essential. That does not compromise ideological demarcation. As to peaceful transition to socialism, Communists do not at all exclude it. They hope and work for it but they recognise its difficulty, even improbability, because of capitalist opposition. In truth, the choice of method depends on the future which cannot be accurately determined.
Regrettably some Labor Party leaders in the latter part of the ’forties took up the anti-Soviet, anti-Communist call of Churchill. Anti-Sovietism became the order of the day. It replaced the fervent pro-Sovietism of the then not so distant past. Because of its identification with the Soviet Communist Party and the Soviet Union, the Communist Party was victim of the new anti-Soviet campaign. Its position in the trade unions came under attack. Its parliamentary vote declined. As the Cold War intensified, so did the pressure against the Communist Party in Australia. The Cold War marked the period of the breach of the war-time collaboration between Britain, the USA and the Soviet Union. Now the world was marked by intense hostility between the Soviet Union and the USA (and its allies). Australian Communist identity with the Soviet Union was such that it gave still more colour to the “foreign” label put upon it at its very birth. Continued incorrect handling of the Party’s relationship with the Soviet Union caused the Party to be seen ever increasingly as an agency of that country. Since the Soviet Union was now the target for attack, one undoubted effect of the attack was to embrace the Communist Party within the attack.
In 1947, the Communist Information Bureau was formed of the Communist Parties of the Soviet Union, of the Eastern European countries and of France and Italy. This body constituted an international centre to which the Communist Party of Australia now looked for leadership. It tended to perpetuate conceptions of the Soviet Party as a directing centre for the world’s Communists.
The period witnessed another event of world-shaking importance – the consummation of the liberation of China. Chinese liberation was a gigantic breach in capitalism. China was a country of the East much closer to Australia than Europe. It had been involved in struggle against militarist Japan years before World War II. Australia’s geography really required close relations with the countries of Asia and the Pacific China’s liberation was hailed by the Communists and cursed by the capitalists. Now the latter warned of the “yellow peril”, painted fantastic pictures of huge numbers of invading sampans descending on Australia and so on. In fact, China sought peace and friendship with the peoples of the world. Australian Communists had long supported the struggle of the Chinese people whereas the US and Australian ruling circles fought against it and maintained their hostility till the ’seventies.
Within Australia, the Communist Party again promoted peace activity. This time the object was against the threat of world war and to frustrate threats to the Soviet Union and China. It opposed the war in Korea (1950-53). It was subject to increasing repression. Thus there was a Royal Commission in 1949 into its activities sparked by allegations of an informer named Sharpley, gaoling of various trade union officials and other Communists among whom was its general secretary. 1950-51 saw an acute struggle over the Commonwealth Act entitled “The Communist Party Dissolution Act”. When the High Court declared that Act unconstitutional, a referendum was held to amend the constitution to give the required constitutional power to support the Act. It failed to win a majority. It was defeated by a campaign that united many sections of people around the defence of democratic rights. There were fears by sections of capitalists that the powers were so far-reaching that they might be used by capitalist rivals. The most significant feature of this Act was its concentration on the trade unions. It provided for the removal of Communists from official trade union positions. In this respect, the capitalists and Communists shared one-sided views on Communism and the trade unions – each saw public Communist control of the trade unions in Australia as decisive for themselves. Assuredly the trade unions were important and many workers would go through the school of trade unions as those workers came to understand (maybe gradually) the need to step beyond the bounds of trade unions in the overall political struggle for emancipation.
The next highlight in the Cold War drama in Australia was another Royal Commission, this time into Soviet “espionage” prompted by allegations by a defecting Soviet diplomat named Petrov plus his wife – “Lady Macbeth”, as Dr. Evatt dubbed her. In this too, further steps were taken to isolate the Communist Party and to isolate the left wing of the Labor Party, indeed the Labor Party as a whole. The Communist Party defended the Soviet Union. The allegation against the Party was that it and its members were espionage agents for the Soviet Union. Thus the historic identification of the Communist Party with the Soviet Communist Party and the Soviet Union was exploited to reach another high point.
By the mid-fifties the anti-Communist hysteria had begun to fade a little. At the same time, there were rumblings of trouble within the Soviet Communist Party. In 1953 Stalin had died. He was succeeded by Khruschov.
In consequence of economic development largely spurred on by World War II and its results, the Australian population reached about 10,000,000 in the post-war decade. There was a great increase in secondary industry and the proportionate role in the economy of agriculture had diminished. Agriculture, however, remained vitally important. Australia, still nominally independent, was now heavily involved in diplomatic and financial dependence on the USA, Britain and to a lesser but nevertheless growing extent, Japan. National identity and sentiment as one nation, were stronger but there were still heavy and divisive marks of colonialism. A significant step in its unitary development had been the High Court sanction of uniform taxation. Taxation from being a State and Federal matter became predominantly a Federal matter. Along with the development of industry, the exigencies of the war had increased the development of unitary tendencies. In 1942 the Statute of Westminster was adopted (retrospectively in important respects from 1939). The Statute of Westminster was the product of the 1926 Imperial Conference of Britain and her Dominions. It recognised the centrifugal forces in the British Empire with the developing economic-political independence of its components and the moves to independent nationhood by former colonies. Evidence, however, of Australia’s ties with Britain was the fact that though the Statute of Westminster was passed by the British Parliament in 1931, it was not adopted by Australia until 1942 and then at the instigation of Curtin’s Labor government with its more Australian outlook and its turn to America. The Statute of Westminster’s most significant feature was its recognition of an enlarged legislative independence for the Dominions and its opening the way for removal of restrictions on Dominion legislative power by the Imperial Colonial Laws Validity Act and certain provisions of the Imperial Merchant Shipping Act. It opened the way for abolition of appeals to the Privy Council. Australia continued its onward march towards nationhood.
Still the great weakness of the Communist Party continued to be that it had not worked out a cohesive and comprehensive analysis of Australia’s place in the world nor a real analysis of how a socialist Australia could be achieved. Socialism was an ardent wish. It had a deep and increasing instinctive appeal among Australian working people. Nor had the Party worked out methods of work for itself commensurate with the Australian situation and appropriate in Australia’s circumstances. It still followed a pragmatic pattern of dealing with questions as they arose rather than within an overall view. It attempted single-handedly to impose its policies on the people. There was about it a Utopian quality – dreams of the future but great difficulty in finding the way to realise those dreams. Its policies and actions reflected a mixture of left and right influences. Pragmatism lent itself to that. Skilful advance and retreat, ebbs and flows in social development were not properly understood. Things were conceived rather in straight line terms. Various programmes advanced at Party Congresses bore the marks of isolation – isolation in the sense of not being an integral part of the Australian people and Australian life. The programmes were formulated in the abstract, derived from abstract thinking and attempted to be imposed on situations for which they were largely inappropriate. Overall, they postulated socialism as an immediate objective when reality dictated biding of time for that socialism and passing through other social phases. Influences of the 1929 “line” left a deep imprint. There were many unfulfilled tasks in Australia which it failed to take systematically into account such as uniting the country, enhancing its independence, not to mention the more advanced perspective of the preliminary revolutionary task of wrenching it from imperialism. In the result, the programmes did not become a real guide either to the Communists or the Australian people.
A characteristic of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Stalin’s latter two decades was what was called its “monolithic unity”. Unity of the Communist Party was very desirable But this “monolithic unity” was a distortion of the organisational principle accepted by Communist Parties, namely democratic centralism. Democratic centralism involved thoroughgoing democratic discussion within the Party: that discussion having run its full course, the majority decision was binding on the minority, the election of leading bodies democratically was achieved and decisions of those leading bodies were binding on the membership and subordinate bodies.
In many ways this type of organisational principle operates in all organisations of Australian people – majority prevails and leading bodies are elected or appointed to carry out the will of the majority. There is nothing extraordinary in democratic centralism. In the Communist Party this organisational principle was harnessed to serve a definite ideology and definite politics and it was characterised by a highly disciplined membership who drew their discipline from consciousness of Communist ideology and politics. This ideology, politics and organisation formed a unity and a division. Party emphasis on conscious discipline was born of the acute struggle against Czarist oppression. It was said that in its struggle for power, the working class had but one weapon, the weapon of organisation. It must be kept in mind that Czarist conditions had their own particularity and some organisational conceptions as the professional revolutionaries discussed in Lenin’s What is to be Done? are by no means universal even though useful general lessons can be learned from the general principles discussed there. Democratic centralism certainly did not prohibit dissent as to what was correct Communist ideology and politics and organisation: it simply declared that once debate had run its course, the majority opinion and decisions of leading bodies prevailed. The dissenters were to observe the decisions arrived at while they reserved their dissent. Freedom of discussion prevailed as to what was the correct Communist ideology and politics and organisation. There were extensive bounds for discussion. But there could be no debate as to whether or not the fundamental principles of Communism were correct. What were fundamental principles was another question also. Acceptance of Communism was axiomatic or conditional to membership of the Communist Party. The assumption was necessarily made that those who joined the Party had consciously and voluntarily decided that Communism was correct and that the Communist Party existed to promote people’s struggle for Communism guided by Communist principle. Thus “freedom of criticism” could not be availed of to turn the Communist Party into a debating society as to whether or not Communism was correct. But within the Party there must be freedom of discussion as to correct integration of general principle with Australia’s actual conditions. The membership and duly established leading bodies would decide what was within Communist ideology and politics and therefore proper subject for debate and what was without. As it was a purely voluntary organisation, those who found they were not subscribers to Communist ideology and politics could leave the Party. The discipline imposed on the workers by their conditions of life – definite work pattern plus discipline within the factories – made it easy for them to understand and grasp Party discipline. Other sections of the population such as students and academics and people from intermediate classes, found it more difficult. Despite what is sometimes said against it, democratic centralism is democratic. It is centralist, expressive of conscious democratic discipline. Given conscious voluntary adherence to correct principles of Communism, it is a very good system.
Democratic centralism can be denied and abused. There grew up a pattern within the Communist Party of Australia (derived probably from Australian understanding of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Stalin’s latter two decades and the dominance of that Party) of various departures from the principles of democratic centralism. “Monolithic unity” in which the unity tended to be the mechanical imposition of the ideas of a few leaders on the membership was one distortion. This stifled democratic discussion of fundamental questions and of general politics. In the nature of the Communist Party, different views do exist on questions of ideology and politics. They are properly catered for within democratic centralism. But they did not flower under “monolithic unity” in such a way that a community of views could be arrived at. Absolute adherence and loyalty to the Soviet Party and all its doings were in effect components of “monolithic unity” and the “line”. A further part of it was an unquestioning adherence to Stalin previously referred to. These are ways in which distortions of democratic centralism expressed themselves. Forms of democratic centralism were maintained in that regular Congresses and Party elections were held. Central, and other committee meetings were held but that atmosphere did not encourage far-reaching ideological and political discussion. The forms of democratic centralism – majority prevailing, regular meetings, etc. – tended to be stereotyped. There were defects in content. It was a situation born of the times and the immaturity of the Party and its understanding of Communism.
In this general background, a crisis in the ranks of Communism occurred in the mid-fifties.